Monday, April 14, 2008

Book Review: Unintelligent Design

Unintelligent Design (amazon link), by esteemed Australian science broadcaster Robyn Williams is a slim book (around 160 pages) devoted to discussing and debunking the Intelligent Design (ID) movement.

This book broadly succeeds in describing the ID movement, some of its characters and some of the major events, such as the Dover trial. Many of these people and events will be familiar to followers of the ID shenannigans, and Williams doesn't always add terribly much to available online discussions, but I found it useful to have much of it together in one place. If you don't know much about ID, this book is a good place to start. It also describes some of the arguments against ID - and here I think it could have presented some of the arguments in more detail, because not all of the conclusions are as well backed by argument as they should have been.

The book also describes the impact (both current and potential) in Australia, and here I think its contribution is clearest; much of this discussion would generalize to other contexts, and it may have been better to attempt do so.

On radio, and in public appearances, Williams conversational style is warm, humorous and intelligent - he is a good interviewer and presenter. He comes over quite well in the book, but a good editor could have let Williams shine through better. The book is written in a chatty conversational style that is quite readable, and works well, apart from a few places where it clunks about a bit and could have used a more careful going over with a stricter eye. The author seems overly attached to a couple of similes; for example the Dodgy brothers (transparently shady denizens of the 1980s Australian television comedy show Australia, You're Standing In It and later, Fast Forward) might have been suited to at most a single mention in a book whose readership is unlikely to be familiar with the reference (unless you're simultaneously middle aged or getting toward it, Australian, and given to watching character-based sketch comedy) - but it gets multiple cameos. If Williams is writing for me, he hits his mark here, but I could not help wondering if the allusion would be lost on many readers.

A knowledgable editor's pencil could also have been used when J. Craig Venter's surname is repeatedly rendered "Ventor"; though I suspect this is not Williams' fault - search-and-replace mistakes by a clueless or inattentive person at the publisher after the text has left the author's hands have dogged many works before this one.

Part II of the book (the final two chapters) reads particularly well - the author gets more personal, even autobiographical (but still relates back to the ID discussion) and makes fewer attempts at levity, and as a result, speaks to the reader better.

ID needs to be skewered at every opportunity, and this book certainly does so, but in places I found it a little frustrating - it needed to "show" more - the effort to maintain the light tone sometimes interfered with the aims of the book, which were not always clear. That said, I definitely liked it - I found the book both entertaining and useful; if you want a light, easy-to-read introduction to ID, the arguments against it, and some of the potential effects of it, you will probably find this a worthwhile book.

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